Education and Social Change
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Education and Social Change

Contours in the History of American Schooling

John L. Rury

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eBook - ePub

Education and Social Change

Contours in the History of American Schooling

John L. Rury

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About This Book

This brief, interpretive history of American schooling focuses on the evolving relationship between education and social change. Like its predecessors, this new edition investigates the impact of social forces such as industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and cultural conflict on the development of schools and other educational institutions. It also examines the various ways that schools have contributed to social change, particularly in enhancing the status and accomplishments of certain social groups and not others. Detailed accounts of the experiences of women and minority groups in American history consider how their lives have been affected by education at key points in the past.

Updates to this edition

  • A revised final chapter updated to include recent changes in educational politics, finance, policy, and a shifting federal policy context
  • Enhanced coverage and new conceptual frames for understanding the experiences of women and people of color in the midst of social change
  • Edited throughout to update information and sources regarding the history of American education and related processes of social transformation in the nation's past

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Colonial America

Religion, Inequality, and Revolution

A good point to begin thinking about changes in American education is the colonial era. Extending from the 17th century (1607) to the Revolutionary War (1776–1783), it spanned nearly two centuries. This was a beginning for much of what eventually came to be seen as elements of American culture, distinct from other parts of the world. And it was an era of sweeping social changes, before industrialization and large-scale urban development. Colonial society was agricultural and it was cast on a small scale. But it also was in flux, experiencing growth and other changes that eventually led to Revolution and a new age in history.
A revealing glimpse into colonial society is offered by one of its best-known and most historically controversial figures. It provides a sense of life at the time, and insight into an essential aspect of education: growing up.


Cotton Mather (1663–1728) was one of the most influential and celebrated men of his time. He was a leading cleric (minister) and intellectual in New England, involved in many aspects of public life. Named for his grandfather, Mather was third in a family line of pastors at Boston’s famous Old North Church. His father Increase also served for a time as president of Harvard College. Cotton graduated from the college and became an overseer (trustee), and later helped to establish Yale, turning down its presidency. He was also a controversial figure in the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692, condemning witchery. Altogether, he authored hundreds of works, including the famous Magnalia Christi Americana—a history of Puritanism in America (Silverman, 1984).
In addition, Mather was a dedicated keeper of diaries, and his daily reflections provide insights on the time. With respect to education, Mather’s chronicles of his family life are revealing; they offer a telling perspective on the problems of an 18th-century parent (Hiner, 1979).
In 1717, Cotton Mather was profoundly troubled. The reason was his children, and his 18-year-old son Increase in particular. “Creasy,” as the son was nicknamed, had been accused by a local “harlot” of fathering her child out of wedlock. Mather was mortified, writing in his diary, “Oh! Dreadful Case! Oh, Sorrow beyond any that I have met withal! What shall I do now for the foolish youth! What for my afflicted and abased family?” Mather managed to keep the case out of the courts, and he also kept Creasy confined at home, plying him daily with sermons and remonstrations for piety and good behavior (Hiner, 1979). But Creasy was not very contrite. Just two weeks after being accused, Mather wrote that young Increase had “made a worse exhibition of himself unto me… than I have ever yet met withal.”
Seemingly desperate, Mather wrote in his diary, “Oh my God, what shall I do? What shall I do?” He had harbored great hopes for young Increase, naming him after his own father in hope the child would continue the Mather tradition of conspicuous piety and religious stewardship (Silverman, 1984). What he found instead was a continuing source of anguish and pain, disappointment tempered by love but also humbling and humiliating. It was a difficult trial of parenthood.
Cotton Mather was father to some 16 children. This was a high number even for colonial America, where the average birth rate was about eight per married woman. But Mather also witnessed all but five of his children die, most before the age of four. He also buried two wives, and had married a third just two years before the accusations against Creasy (Hiner, 1979). It is possible that the large size of his family was meant to compensate for these losses. Some researchers have speculated that high birth rates were a response to the fear of death and uncertainty in the New World. If children were likely to die, a family needed more of them (Moran & Vinovskis, 1992). No doubt the revelations about Creasy did little to ease Mather’s anxieties about his family.
There is abundant evidence, however, that Mather cherished his son deeply. Less than two years after the charged illicit union, Creasy was accused of “bearing a part in a night-riot, with some of the most detestable rakes in town.” Once again Mather was distraught. “My miserable, miserable, miserable son Increase,” he wrote in his diary, at the same time asking, “Oh what shall I do?” He decided to send Creasy to stay with his grandfather, who also was upset, and to write him a “tremendous letter” threatening that he would “never own him or do for him or look upon him” until he repented.
Shortly after sending his son away, though, Mather found himself in tears as he asked God to help his son. “Ah poor Increase,” he wrote in his diary, “Tho I spake against him, yet I earnestly remember him, and my bowels are troubled for him.” A little later, in writing another pastor for help with Creasy, Mather predicted that “when you see him, you will certainly love him” (Silverman, 1984). Creasy continued to be a test to his father’s devotion until his untimely death at sea in 1724. But Mather’s torment upon hearing that news revealed the depth of his affection. “Ah vain world,” he wrote, “how little is to be expected in thee and from thee… disappointed harvests, how frequent are you… this world will afford us no substantial happiness.” In this respect, Mather’s feelings toward Creasy were not unusual: He grieved openly and sorrowfully when each of his children died. The fact that it occurred so frequently, or in the case of Creasy so far away, did not diminish the pain. Youthful indiscretion, sickness, and death were all a part of life for Cotton Mather and other parents in 18th-century British North America. But families were bound together with genuine love and affection, even if they were separated by vast distances and for long stretches of time. It was these sentiments that defined parenthood more than any other.
In many respects, Cotton Mather’s behavior was quite contrary to the image of a didactic 18th-century cleric. He did not assert the authority of patriarchy or parenthood, and he did not command his son or threaten him (aside from a hollow warning of banishment). Nor did he throw him out or condemn him to damnation and suffering. Rather, he fretted despondently, as one who worried about Creasy’s plight and cared deeply for him. Despite his conservative religious background, Cotton Mather was quite a modern parent for his time. Behavior such as his would come to be emblematic of familial relations in Colonial America (Morgan, 1966).
Historians have suggested that Europeans who settled in the New World acquired a distinctive view of life and social relations (Bushman, 1967; Butler, 2000). This was partly a reaction against Old World traditions of inherited privilege and hierarchical rules regarding status and opportunity. But even if settlers missed their former society, the New World offered a different set of expectations and freedom from many constraints in the old order. Although many young men observed what historian Harvey Graff has described as the “traditional pathways” by following in their father’s vocation and station in life, others did not. American children did not even have the memory of European convention to constrain them, and alternative pursuits often proved inviting (Graff, 1995).
Cotton Mather, for all of his regard of tradition and respect for authority, was a product of this new social environment. He did not dictate orders to his children as much as he educated them. In this respect, it is possible to say that he attempted to transmit a high level of cultural capital to his offspring. But the transfer of these attributes was never automatic; nor was it often easy, as Mather’s experience with Creasy suggests. Mather worried about his children’s prospects, but all he could give them was training and wise counsel. It was up to them to make their ways in the world as free, autonomous individuals. And of course there was Mather’s undying affection, a source of pleasure in his life and also anguish. Such is the puzzle of human development and education in the modern era: How to prepare the next generation for the challenges of the future, while trying to protect them from the dangers? It was a dilemma especially poignant in the so-called “New World.”

Life in a Colonial Setting

It is difficult to imagine today, but North America seemed a truly “New World” in colonial times. At least this was true for Europeans who came to settle, or to profit and plunder. It was a vast stretch of time, and much happened between the moment when the first White settlers arrived and the Revolution. A largely English colonial society took root, and it evolved rather quickly from one generation to the next. On the western side of the continent, and in Florida and the southwest, Spanish settlements appeared, and they too witnessed considerable change. This was an early form of what today is called globalization. It was a complicated process, but it is still possible to make certain observations about the time. It was quite different from today.
Most of North America was a vast wilderness then, inhabited by a native population numbering perhaps ten million throughout the continent. Visitors to New England reportedly could smell pine trees more than a hundred miles offshore. The first European settlements were tiny, and did not extend very far into the interior. Residents lived in close proximity to nature, and its hardships were a major preoccupation, especially the weather and wild animals or pestilence. Life in these circumstances was a constant battle against the elements, and dogged perseverance was necessary for survival.
Of course, the North American continent was already inhabited when English settlers arrived. The Native Americans, or “Indians,” as they had been dubbed by Columbus, included hundreds of different social and cultural groupings. The vast majority lived in agricultural and hunting societies, on a scale considerably smaller than European nations, apart from certain tribal federations. Although the American Indian population was substantial, it was spread thinly across the landscape. Divided into many different tribes and lacking advanced military technology, the Native Americans were often unable to prevail against Europeans in disputes. As a consequence, they were eventually defeated, exploited, and pushed out of the way to make room for the expanding White population. In educational terms, this was among the most basic and profound lessons taught by the experience of colonial settlement: the Europeans saw Native Americans as an inferior people. When not feared, they were crushed and discarded if seen standing in the way of “progress,” and pitied or made “civilized” once defeated (Nash, 1974/2000).
The self-righteous attitudes of Europeans who felt superior to American Indians took different forms, and weren’t always expressed in hostility or violence. Some newcomers adopted an early form of racism, speculating that inherent mental differences accounted for observed European superiority. Others found themselves beguiled by the handsome features of natives, or by their seemingly modest, natural lifestyle. But even the “friends” of the Native Americans sought to convert them to Christianity, teach them European morality, or undermine their culture in countless other ways. This initial contact between two vastly different traditions marked an early process of social change in American history. It was a transformation that proceeded largely in one direction, with American Indian society being forcefully pushed to the margins of the emerging European-based civilization, even though Whites learned a great deal from Native Americans in the process (Axtell, 1985). In light of this history, the term New World is both telling and ironic.

The Different Worlds of Colonial North America

The cultural interaction and displacement that led to European domination was in full bloom by the time Englishmen came to settle in the 17th century. British North America grew to be a large, diversified land, extending along the Atlantic seaboard in different colonies. Religious expatriates started some of these settlements; others were founded for personal or collective gain. The land was marked by different climates and a varied topography, and settled by people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Thus, it is difficult to generalize about the colonial population and the educational practices and institutions of the time. It is wrong, in short, to speak of a single, unitary colonial culture. Although the colonies shared a number of similarities, each was quite distinctive—especially when it came to everyday culture and educational customs.
Spanish colonial settlements were a bit different. Spaniards launched exploratory missions and dispatched expeditions in search of fortune nearly a century before the English. In North America, they established outposts that grew into settlements in Florida during the 16th century, Texas in the 17th century, and along the Pacific coast in the territory of California during the 18th century. These colonies did not attract large numbers of settlers. Instead, they generally consisted of missions and ranches, with garrisons of troops for protection. These outposts were attacked by British and French raiders, especially in Florida. The principal point of Spanish settlement and political authority lay to the south in Mexico (Rawls & Bean, 2003; Weber, 1994).
Most historians divide British colonial America into three regions, each with a large contiguous territory (Henretta, 1973; Main, 1965). The first, in order of settlement, was the South, which began with Jamestown in 1607. Representing the colonies of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, the South specialized in commercial agriculture, and developed a social structure and cultural traditions well adapted to its dominant economic interests. Just to the north were the middle colonies, the largest of which were Quaker Pennsylvania and Dutch New Amsterdam, later named New York by the English. These colonies, which also included New Jersey and Delaware, featured a heterogeneous mix of peoples who came for a variety of purposes. To the north of the middle colonies was New England, perhaps the most familiar colonial region, and oft-noted in regard to the history of education.
Different patterns of economic development and cultural and political traditions characterized each region. All of the colonies were preindustrial and local economies were dominated by agriculture, but climate and terrain dictated the way people worked and lived. The South, with its relatively warm climate and long growing season, exported commodities such as tobacco and, to a lesser degree, rice, along with other cash crops. Land was plentiful but workers were not, so Southern landholders turned to involuntary labor. This meant indentured servants at first, but eventually they utilized large numbers of African slaves. This was accompanied by the development of racist ideology, which took decades to evolve. In the North, large-scale agriculture of this sort was rare, and small freeholder farms predominated, usually worked by a single family. The quality of land for cultivation varied a good deal. These farmers generally produced little for the export market, although many participated in the expanding local trade, particularly as nearby settlements grew (Henretta, 1973; Hofstadter, 1971).
Culturally, different traditions characterized each of these regions, but there were many localized customs as well. In the South, for example, the wealthy planters (plantation owners) represented a cultural and political leadership. Even if they were a minority of the population, they set the tone for prevailing values and institutional development, including educational practices. Elsewhere, the local colonial leadership was dictated by the circumstances of each colony’s founding. Religion was an important factor in the cultural character of many settlements, especially in the North. Spiritual belief remains a key aspect of culture today, of course, but it was especially significant then. Religious convictions were critical elements of individual identity, much the way nationalism or ethnic heritage may be today. It was an age of religious ferment, moreover, and there was considerable conflict between rival faith traditions in Europe. The settling of North America followed closely on the heels of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic counterreformation, events that shaped British politics and international conflict (Fischer, 1989; Morgan, 1975). Religion was especially influential when it came to education.
Denominational influences differed widely across the colonies. In the South, the wealthy planters were generally Anglican, the Church of England, which had split from Catholicism during the reign of Henry VIII. On the other hand, dissident religious groups, hoping to practice their beliefs outside the established church, largely settled the New England and middle colonies. The Quakers in Pennsylvania were one such group, along with Catholics in Maryland, and a little later Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in Pennsylvania, New York, and elsewhere. But the best-known and probably the most important of the religious colonies were those established in New England. It is there that discussions of the connection between religion and education in American history usually begin.

Religion, Culture, and Education

Most Americans are familiar with the story of the Pilgrims launching Plymouth Colony during the early 1600s. Like them, many migrants to British North America came in pursuit of religious autonomy. Other groups seeking to practice their own faith settled nearby, the most important being the Puritans. They founded Massachusetts Bay Colony and the city of Boston, which became the region’s most important settlement. Their beliefs and behavior reflected elements of what became American culture in the years to follow.
The Puritans—like many British settlers in northern colonies—were resolute Protestants. In particular, they were followers, to one extent or another, of the French theologian John Calvin (1509–1564), who rejected papal authority to form a church based on biblical interpretation and faith. They departed England because they believed it corrupt and decadent, and they hoped to establish a more perfect social order based on moral authority and religious virtue. Like many other Protestants, they rejected the seemingly empty rituals in Catholic and Anglican religious practices. They held that each person bore an individual relationship to God, based on piety and goodness, although they were hardly prudes. The search for religious freedom, however, did not always mean they were willing to tolerate the views of others. There were occasional sectarian conflicts that marked the first century of settlement in New England (Miller, 1956, 1959; Rutman, 1977). Such clashes notwithstanding, most people who came to this part of British North America believed that the grace of God was manifest in the lives they led.
The religious beliefs of the Puritans, the Pilgrims, and other groups in New England held great consequence for education. It would not be wrong, as suggested earlier, to view religion as a principal component of the ideology of the age. Perhaps the most fundamental tenet of Protestantism was the belief that each person needed to form a connection with God. To do this one had to be able to read and interpret the Holy Scripture, catechisms, and other religious writings; in particular it meant that every man, or person, should know the Bible. This required literacy, and the ability to reason from principles conveyed through a variety of texts. It was a set of skills that earlier generations of Europeans had not cultivated widely. In the era of Calvinist Protestantism, however, becoming literate and knowledgeable was believed a great virtue in the service of religion. This meant that historically new importance was attached to education.
Social theorists have long debated the historical significance of Protestantism, and Calvinism in particular, as a transforming influence in Western civilization. Max Weber, the celebrated German social theorist, argued that the Protestant Reformation was linked to the rise of capitalism and its distinctive social and ideological features. In particular, he suggested that Protestant predilections for simplicity and thrift, hard work, and self-improvement influenced the merchants, financiers, and forward-looking aristocrats who helped shape modern capitalist society (Weber, 1930). It was an ideological outlook especially well suited to capitalism as a social and economic system. In the New World, it influenced thousands of small free-holding farmers and the entrepreneurs who served them as tradesmen, innkeepers, and peddlers. While the relationship between religion and economic and social development was not necessarily direct and immediate, historians agree that the appearance of Protestantism in the 16th century began an era of unprecedented social change (Landes, 1998).
The movement of Europeans to North America, in that case, can be considered a part of a massive social and ideological shift that occurred at this time (1500–1800). This certainly can be said of the first European settlers in what became New England. The rise of Protestantism in its various forms signaled a renewed commitment to human perfectibility and moral impro...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Table of Contents
  6. Preface
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. Introduction: History, Social Change, and Education
  9. 1 Colonial America: Religion, Inequality, and Revolution
  10. 2 Emergence of a Modern School System: The Nineteenth Century
  11. 3 Ethnicity, Gender, and Race: Contours of Social Change in the 19th Century
  12. 4 Growth, Reform, and Differentiation: The Progressive Era
  13. 5 Education, Equity, and Social Policy: Postwar America to the 1970s
  14. 6 Globalization and Human Capital: From “A Nation at Risk” to Neo-Liberal Reform
  15. Epilogue: Education and Social Change in Perspective
  16. References
  17. Index
Citation styles for Education and Social Change

APA 6 Citation

Rury, J. (2019). Education and Social Change (6th ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)

Chicago Citation

Rury, John. (2019) 2019. Education and Social Change. 6th ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Rury, J. (2019) Education and Social Change. 6th edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Rury, John. Education and Social Change. 6th ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.